Forget book as art. Forget even book as message. This is book as product. From the annals of shameless, brazen self-promotion: the selling of Harvey Mackay
Harvey Mackay, the self-described "obscure envelope maker from the flyover state of Minnesota," became a publishing miracle when he authored an all-time business best-seller. Why did it happen? Not, by all accounts, because his book was that good. His real weapon was a product marketing savvy the likes of which publishers had never seen. -- J.H.
The way F. Kevin Kurtz tells it, you'd have to believe he was innocent. Just a businessman, he says, trying to pick up a few useful tips on a flight from Denver to Phoenix. So he pulls out a paperback business book. "I like to read this type of thing occasionally," he admits.
And what does he know of this book, the one he has just started? Curiously little. It has a provocative title: Swim with the Sharks Without Being Eaten Alive. He's not sure, but he may have read about the author, Harvey Mackay, or seen him on a talk show. Back when he was leafing through it at the bookstore, he couldn't help but notice that lots of big shots had endorsed the book, from New York governor Mario Cuomo to Gloria Steinem. So he coughed up $4.95, stuffed it in his briefcase, and forgot about it for more than two weeks, until March 3, 1989.
On that day, Kurtz found himself on a plane with time to kill. He was just a few pages into the book when he heard footsteps coming up the aisle behind him. The way he tells it, it all happened very fast. There was a tap on his shoulder. He swung around to find an impressively tanned man in a dark three-piece suit. "What do you think of the book?" the stranger boomed. Kurtz felt flustered. "I'm just getting into it," he managed, "but so far, so good." He smiled. "Well," the man said, "I'm Harvey Mackay. I wrote that book." To verify, Kurtz dutifully compared this beaming face with the one on the book cover.
Before he knew it, Kurtz found himself on one of the few flights ever to offer live entertainment. Mackay launched into a 20-minute speech, including an impromptu press conference, in which he generously took questions. He talked -- so loudly that everyone within at least a four-row radius could hear -- about the cities he had visited promoting the book, about the great people he was meeting. At one point, he scurried back to his seat, returning with a silver shark-shaped lapel pin for Kurtz. Explaining the commotion, a flight attendant announced who Mackay was and the name of his book over the loudspeaker. "He saw a marketing opportunity," says Kurtz, a Denver real-estate developer. "He truly seized the moment."
And a rare moment it was. For the carefully scripted marketing of Swim with the Sharks left few moments unaccounted for, and little room for unrehearsed coincidence. A first-time author and chairman of his own small business, Mackay wasn't willing to settle for the rotten odds most authors face. Unlike, say, J. D. Salinger, this was not a writer about to let his work speak for itself.
The result? Nothing short of a small publishing miracle. Already, Sharks has sold some 2.3 million copies -- enough books, apparently, to rank among the top-grossing business titles of all time. Enough books to transform Harvey Mackay, anonymous Minnesota envelope maker, into a best-selling, multimedia star.
And that's not even the remarkable part. More astonishing than the magnitude of Mackay's literary success is that it has almost nothing to do with what he wrote. His secret -- so obvious, so effective -- was to approach the creation and launch of his manuscript the way he would approach the creation and launch of any other piece of goods. Forget book as art. Forget even book as intelligence. This was book as product. What mattered most about Sharks was not its negligible content; what mattered was that it could be sold.
Mackay's strategy for self-propelled best-sellerdom? Meticulously study the industry and then go to absurd extremes and untold expense to boost your chance for sales. Simply put, Mackay used the same kind of shrewd and shameless intensity that served him so well in the competitive envelope business. It was in his early days there that he trained himself to bawl in the front offices of customers who stretched out payments; once, before that, he took 300 accounts with him when he quit a job.
Entering the publishing industry, he refused to check his aggressiveness at the big mahogany door. Practices that would have been acceptable, inspirational even, in almost any competitive industry left many a publishing type -- they of the suede elbow patches -- as bent out of shape as a soggy paperback. Like Kurtz, they responded with a mixture of horror and admiration. "Publishers don't like to be told their business," admits Harriet Rubin, an executive editor at Doubleday. "But Harvey has taught us."
Even as Rubin spoke, professor Mackay was preparing a new curriculum. Back in the Minneapolis office of his $35-million envelope company, with an inflated shark hovering overhead, Mackay has mapped out his second assault. "I'm going to do everything humanly possible to succeed with my second book," vows the 57-year-old, whose sequel was published last month. "I'm ready to do something that's never before been done in business publishing."
If you overheard people talking about it, you might start looking for Swim with the Sharks in the cookbook section of your local bookstore. Mackay's agent refers to it as "popcorn." His publisher talks about the book in terms of bite-size nuggets. "I consumed it on a three-hour flight," adds Gary Cino, an avid reader who runs Step Ahead Investments Inc., #79 on the 1989 INC. 500. "Just talking about it, I'm wound up to read it again."
Neither of Mackay's works -- his second is numbingly titled Beware the Naked Man Who Offers You His Shirt -- rely on especially original insights to propel you through them. Instead, Mackay offers a structure and tone so easy to read that there is no compelling reason to stop. Chapters are splintered into lessons, most of which aren't even two pages long. And just as your attention span shrinks to fit those, Mackay switches to "quickies," which take up even less space. Such inventions allow readers to, in industry jargon, "biopsy" the book. And whereas Tom Peters might exhort you to wander around your factory more, Mackay simply offers hand-holding wisdom about keeping a job, coping with customers and bosses, staying afloat in turbulent waters. "There's not a lot new in business concepts," he says.
And nothing urgent, no coming depression to get worked up about. He rambles through stories about his dad, his tennis partners, his kids, and even customers (during a hymn to Billy Graham, he neglects to mention where the good pastor's organization procures envelopes). He smears flattery like thick relish, handily illustrating the central point of both books: not that flattery will get you anywhere, but that well-aimed, well-informed, and well-organized flattery will take you further than you ever imagined. In Sharks, for instance, he offers a 66-question customer profile that, when filled out, provides you with raw material for feigning interest in a customer's family, hobbies, alma mater, or whatever. In Beware the Naked Man, he offers similar questionnaires, one enabling employees to capitalize on their employer's culture, and another helping managers manipulate employees better. The books may sound spare, but Mackay carefully creates little in the way of expectations. As he writes in Sharks: "You're reading this book for a reason: in the hope that buried somewhere in these pages are at least one or two ideas you'll be able to use."
That one sentence says as much about Mackay's success as everything else in his books. The single biggest weapon in his conquest of the alien publishing world harkens back to marketing fundamentals: he found out what people craved, and he diligently tried to serve it to them. The lengths to which he went would have been considered extreme in any industry; but in the antiquated and quirky business of publishing, his methods verged on revolutionary. "There are two kinds of writing: one is writing as an art, and the other is writing to be read, used, and sold," says Kenneth H. Blanchard, who coauthored with Spencer Johnson the 1982 blockbuster The One Minute Manager. "Harvey made his choices before the book was written."
Blanchard was his inspiration. Mackay first met him in 1977, when the college professor and textbook author spoke at an envelope industry convention. Through a contact, Mackay even helped Blanchard get his book into one of the big retail chains. After hearing Mackay speak, Blanchard encouraged him to build a book around some of his speeches, which carried such pithy themes as -- in an eerie foreshadowing of another author's eventual best-seller -- "Ten Lessons I Didn't Learn in Business School."
Under Blanchard, Mackay served as an eager apprentice in the field of phenomenon creation. He carefully noted how Blanchard and his coauthor garnered attention from publishers by soliciting endorsements from a dozen top managers; how they attracted retailers by offering a money-back guarantee; how they lured consumers with a gold seal that read: "A Gem -- Small, Expensive And Invaluable." Most of all, he clearly understood that what the pair had created was essentially "a children's book for adults," as Blanchard admits. "People don't want to read a lot, so we made it a 45-minute read."
For their brevity, they were repaid with a smash best-seller. From the very start, Mackay sought similar rewards. "My modus operandi is that if I'm going to do something, I am going to do it well," he says. "If I'm going to create a book, it has to be a good product. Once it is, I'd like to give it every chance to be a big hit." Blanchard fully expected that Mackay would "take everything just a bit further."
But nobody imagined just how far he would go.
Now if you or I set out to write a book, we'd probably go and read some of the books that are already out there. Well, don't take this personally, but that's a dumb place to start. After all, as Kenneth Blanchard will tell you, studies show most people don't bother to read most of the books they buy. So forget getting read. Focus on getting bought.
Knowing that, Mackay focused his pre- Sharks research on the obstacles that prevented authors from selling books. At every opportunity, starting in 1986, he mined his Rolodex to talk to writers, booksellers, and others with publishing experience. Prowling bookstores -- never at lunchtime, when managers get very harried -- he'd ask how authors could help sell books. He also wanted some basic information about the industry. When you run out of books, how do you get new ones? He stored away the answers. With authors, he'd get specific: how important is the title? Should I have illustrations? Most voiced one regret: that they hadn't sold more books. "Always, they'd tell me it was the publisher's fault," says Mackay.
Wandering through bookstores, Mackay began to believe that authors simply weren't giving publishers any-thing different to sell. The titles all sounded alike. The covers looked interchangeable. And all the books carried virtually the same yawn-inducing endorsements. By spinning his Ferris wheel of a Rolodex -- he obsessively collects and uses contacts -- Mackay was convinced he could do better.
Mackay decided in late 1986 that he was going to write a book. "We took it seriously," recalls William Jacobs, then president and chief operating officer of Mackay Envelope Corp. "He was always taking big things on." As a writer, Mackay wasn't the sort to retreat to the solace of a cottage, pecking away until sundown robbed him of sufficient light. At 5:45 a.m. every day, Mackay set off on a seven-mile run. He'd return home to a yellow legal pad, on which he scribbled down thoughts. Driving in his car, he strapped a dictating machine into the passenger seat. He made notes aboard airplanes, and during rare reflective moments he wrote from his desk at home, gazing out on shimmering Christmas Lake.
As his readers would later do, Mackay picked up the book sporadically -- during a two-week family vacation in Rio, poolside at a tennis camp in Phoenix, where he arrived for lessons toting a racket and briefcase. He reread speeches and articles he had written, pondered the lessons his dad, the St. Paul correspondent for Associated Press, had taught him.
Although he preaches niche-picking in Beware the Naked Man -- "little markets often mean less competition," he writes -- his books strew advice every which way: toward investors and salespeople, entrepreneurs and middle managers. "I did not pick a niche. If you are a good businessperson, the same things apply to being a good coach, or a good parent," he says. "These are life lessons." Rather than restricting himself to, say, salespeople -- or even businesspeople -- he structured the book so that any reader can easily browse, and zero in on especially relevant lessons.
To help him visualize his dream of reaching a wide audience, he taped the title of his book onto a copy of The New York Times best-seller list, then tacked the page to his office wall. "I just pounded it out," he says of his manuscript. "Writing was no big deep-down thing." Instinctively, he was conserving his energy for selling.
By February 1987 Mackay had most of a rough draft finished. Blanchard gladly arranged a meeting between Mackay and top executives at his publisher, William Morrow & Co. "While Morrow was waiting for my next best-seller," says Blanchard, "I could become a hero by bringing them Harvey."
A first-time author, and one with no agent at that, would be lucky to meet with a senior editor. But in March 1987 Mackay -- thanks to Blanchard's intercession -- sat across the table from Larry Hughes, chairman and chief executive of Hearst Trade Books Group, which includes Morrow, and Allen Marchioni, chairman, president, and CEO of Morrow. "When one of our best-selling authors speaks, we notice," says Hughes.
Having read the 350-page manuscript, Hughes pronounced that it had "excellent prospects to be a good seller," maybe even a best-seller. Not only did Hughes underestimate the book, he couldn't have anticipated the man behind it. A proponent of what he calls "superior information," Mackay dug up as much as he could about Hughes beforehand. He found that Hughes had never had a bad break with an author. And that golf could serve as neutral ground.
As is his practice before any big meeting, Mackay jotted every point he intended to make on a yellow legal pad. Then he memorized the whole list. He put himself in the publishers' shoes -- as businessmen, they were interested in selling the book, not debating its literary merit. They toiled, after all, in an industry where some days it took a jeweler's loupe to detect the profit margin. So he would make sure they knew of his success as an envelope salesman, of the standing ovations he had inspired as a speaker, of his ability to bring in endorsements from such celebrities as Dear Abby herself (see "The Selling of Harvey Mackay: Chapter 1," page 7). When he hired salespeople, he wanted to know they were committed to the product; he would show Morrow the same single-mindedness. Instead of just touring the top eight markets to publicize the book, Mackay would tell them, I'm committed to an extensive tour. Even if it means taking a year away from my company.
And just what, exactly, did he want from Morrow? In a word, money. Not only in the form of a "very competitive" six-figure advance, as Hughes puts it, but also a guaranteed advertising budget. Any self-respecting first-time author would be thrilled to walk away with, say, $35,000 in unguaranteed money; Mackay wanted $150,000. Publishers generally want the option of funneling funds to whatever book gets hot. "I don't think he could have talked us into this deal without the manuscript," says Hughes, "but we thought it had excellent potential."
There was just one more thing Mackay sought. His talks with authors had shown one reason why books didn't sell more: there weren't enough of them. That's why he thought his first printing should be more generous. Like, oh, 100,000 -- extraordinary for a first book by an unknown author. Hughes blanched. "We never guarantee the author a certain number of copies," he says.
Mackay backed down. Well, sort of. Truth to tell, an odd thing happened. In the fall of 1987, a few months before Morrow actually published the book, its sales reps solicited bookstores to help figure out how many they ought to publish. They got a respectable 20,000 orders. The sales department checked once more before going to press in February. Orders had shot up, close to a whopping 100,000.
What on earth happened in between? Here's a hint: Rolodex.
"Authors will promise things and then they don't always deliver," says Adrian Zackheim, the senior editor who worked with Mackay. "They don't understand marketing, nor should they. Harvey educated himself to learn about the system, and it's no insult to him to say that he knew something about how to manipulate that system."
Or maybe, it would soon seem, he knew everything.
Part of manipulating the system, Mackay decided, involved priming the distribution network. Like any manufacturer, he was going to be dependent on reps -- in this case the Morrow sales force -- who had many other products to sell. For Sharks to stand out in their line, he had to stand out in their minds.
One way to introduce himself was to speak at Morrow's national sales meeting, to which a few authors are invited every year. He asked Morrow if he could appear, following his request with a promise that he felt sure would differentiate him from other enlightened authors. I promise not even to mention my book, he told them. To write a speech he hoped would be memorable, he launched another fact-finding mission, visiting retailers to ask about publishers' reps. How can reps serve you better? What do you think about the Morrow rep in your area? He issued his findings in the speech, during which he also performed a neat trick, illustrating his book's message. And now, he announced, I'm going to tell you about my editor, Adrian Zackheim -- thereupon turning the session into a live version of "This Is Your Life," replete with detail that "drew a gasp from the crowd," says the somewhat embarrassed Zackheim, who declines to reveal the specifics. Whatever Mackay said, it ensured that the reps would remember him. "What could be better than having the people who sell the book say to people, 'Hey, I've met Mr. Mackay, and I think you'll like the book," Mackay explains.
To sell his product, Mackay would do whatever he could to make sure he stood out. Through his research, he'd learned that publishers see as many as 750,000 manuscripts a year and publish only about 70,000. Just a handful graduate to best-seller status. With 25,000 titles in the average bookstore, Mackay could count on about two seconds of time to make an impression on readers. The only hope: to make an impression all along the distribution chain, extending as far down as the individual store manager, who then uses his discretion to display the book in a store window or a "manager recommends" section up-front. "Managers have a lot to say in the marketing of a book," says Harry Hoffman, CEO of Waldenbooks, operator of about 1,200 bookstores.
While publishers generally discourage authors from looking for input from such pedestrian sources as retailers, Mackay felt he had to make a personal impression on Hoffman. He called him, offering to fly from Minneapolis to Stamford, Conn., for just 180 seconds of Hoffman's time. "Seeing them one-on-one spells out commitment," says Mackay. Hoffman, who says he "will meet with anybody who wants to come in and talk about a book," went along. Based on Morrow's early solicitation, the chain had already agreed to buy 5,000 copies of the book. After 30 minutes with Mackay, Hoffman upped the order by 10,000. Hoffman's assessment of the book was that "the content was OK, it wasn't startling to me. The cover was good and the title was good." Mostly, Mackay made sure that Hoffman understood the magnitude of his promotional campaign. "I realized he was very aggressive," says Hoffman.
And memorable, as always. Jeff Capshew, then Morrow buyer for B. Dalton Bookseller Inc., an 800-store chain, has a five-foot-tall tennis racket to remind him of Mackay. Having discovered Capshew's passion for the sport, Mackay made sure to indulge it. "It's very impressive," says Capshew, now director of merchandising at Scribner's Bookstores. "I mean, who could remember that part of a conversation, and then send a gift like that? You end up remembering that person." And if that person just happens to have a book, might you not remember that too? "We made a pretty substantial order," says Capshew. With those chains buying at respectable levels, Mackay had ammunition to call up, for example, the president of Crown Books Corp. I know your buyers passed on the book, he'd say, but I just wanted to let you know of the commitments I already have. Crown subsequently placed an order for 5,000.
Wherever Mackay thought a one-on-one meeting might help smooth the path, he would spring for a plane ticket. At one point, with early copies tucked under his arm, he dropped in at Nashville's Ingram Distribution Group Inc., the nation's largest book wholesaler. To reorder books, retailers had told him, we simply call one of Ingram's 75 or so telemarketers. Mackay immediately sensed value in becoming more than another computer printout to them. "They might suggestively sell my book," he notes.
Aside from meeting with CEO Philip Pfeffer, Mackay made the rounds like a doctor, administering to each telemarketer, passing out signed copies of the book and shark-shaped lapel pins. The pins represented yet another of Mackay's efforts to differentiate himself. Most authors opted for bookmarks, but Mackay spent hundreds of dollars on the pins, which he designed himself. "It keeps people thinking about me," he says.
When not waxing the distribution chute, Mackay was back working with Morrow -- well, alongside Morrow, anyway. In truth, they didn't agree on all that much when it came to attracting readers. While writing, Mackay had rejected a few book titles: Prepare to Win (too mundane) and 88 Lessons for '88 (too dated), among others. Then he snagged a line that he especially cherished, How to Swim with the Sharks Without Being Eaten Alive. That's it, he thought, a powerful symbol combining a sense of raunchiness and curiosity. The folks at Morrow were not quite as enthusiastic. "I hated it," says Zackheim. At meeting after meeting, they hashed it over, with Zackheim arguing that it was too long and too vague. To break the impasse, Mackay turned to Janz/Abrahamson Inc., a Minneapolis company with experience naming such products as hot dogs, jelly, and beer. For $6,000, they called together a focus group to brainstorm for four hours. Despite the 800 alternatives, Swim with the Sharks Without Being Eaten Alive -- minus the "How to" -- came out on top. When Mackay displayed the computer printout to 11 Morrow executives, "it blew them out of the water," he says. They capitulated. "If an author feels such a moral certainty about a title, you've got to say yes," says Zackheim.
During a struggle over the cover of the book, Mackay huddled with an artist to come up with a design both parties could tolerate. Nothing about the packaging of the book escaped Mackay's fanatical penchant for detail. He even argued about the size of the type, submitting the expert opinion of his eye doctor, who testified that 30% of the population would get tired eyes from reading the print Morrow had chosen. "His opinions were always informed," says Zackheim.
As the book got closer to becoming reality -- its official publication date was March 16, 1988 -- Mackay became convinced that Morrow's overburdened publicity department could not give Sharks, one of roughly 240 Morrow titles that year, the attention he wanted. So again he hauled out his Rolodex and began calling around for recommendations. He settled on Michael Schwager Associates Inc., a small New York City PR firm that had little experience working with authors. That appealed to Mackay. "I need fresh thinking," he told Schwager. "Conventional options are not enough. We need to create options."
To kick off the promotion, Mackay had decided to host a Minneapolis book signing with champagne. "We'd create some talk, and it would spread from there," he explains. Again, Zackheim expressed some, uh, reservations. "Book signings cost a lot of money and they don't generate anything," he says flatly. Undaunted, Mackay took it upon himself, collaborating on the design of tasteful invitations -- well, as tasteful as any invitation with a small gold shark on it can be -- and inviting the right people, including many members of the media. On March 1, in just four hours, Mackay sold close to 1,000 books. The local newspaper covered it as a news event; two TV stations ran footage that night. "Our thinking was New York provincialism at its ripest," says Zackheim.
Indeed it was. "Those people in Minnesota bought the hell out of that book," says Capshew. "They propelled it onto the lower level of the best-seller list themselves. And once you have a toehold there, people start to take notice."
Even such New York publishers as Morrow. "We didn't envision what would happen," admits Hughes. "Not even in our wildest dreams."
Like the space shuttle, books contend with a narrow window during which they can be launched and reach their destination. Everything must be timed precisely; an aspiring best-seller has momentum on its side for only about six weeks -- roughly the time between Judith Krantz novels.
Weeks before Shark's publication date, Mackay alerted the media. Mackay wondered whether Jim Klobuchar, who appears daily in the Star Tribune, was going to write a column about his book. "Harvey," Klobuchar replied wearily, "you've already leaked advance copies of it to everyone around town. Why should I write about it?" It was true; Mackay carefully cushioned the book's birth with plenty of media. Within weeks of Sharks' appearance in bookstores, Mackay's face appeared on the cover of Twin Cities magazine and articles appeared in several airline magazines. He published a piece in the Harvard Business Review. It was all carefully orchestrated. As the chronically aphoristic Mackay says: "Little things don't mean a lot; they mean everything."
A 26-city tour can hardly be classified as a little thing, though, either in expense or logistics. Mackay refuses to say how much he spent promoting Sharks, but stresses that he would have spent his entire advance -- which industry sources estimate at around $200,000 -- if he'd had to. Gail Jeffords, the Schwager Associates account executive who handled his tour, says each city, with escort, hotel, telephone, and other expenses, cost at least $3,000.
Flying into town, Mackay might do a radio interview at 7:00 a.m., newspaper or TV by noon, back to radio at drive-time, and cap it off with a late-night talk show. Between interviews, Mackay popped in at four or five bookstores. How is your supply of Sharks? he'd ask the manager. Then he'd offer to sign whatever was in stock. While authors sometimes look down on bookstore managers, Mackay "didn't make people feel bad for being out of stock or low in inventory," reports Capshew. Managers, clutching their shark pins as they watched him go, felt compelled to give Sharks that coveted spot alongside the cash register.
Despite the exhaustion and frustration of touring, Mackay never lost sight of his purpose: pushing books. If he had to show up at 6:00 a.m. or wait 45 minutes for equipment to be ready, he would call the office or dig prioritized reading -- no sports magazines allowed -- out of his briefcase.
He crammed. Before going on any local talk show, he would ask his publicist for as much information as she could get about the hosts' backgrounds and hobbies, always trying to figure out what might elicit friendliness. Then he carefully tailored his message to the time he had, using a 90-second TV spot to review one lesson or amplify on the book's subtitle: Outsell, Outmanage, Outmotivate and Outnegotiate Your Competition. Is it a women's show? He'd review the lesson on how to buy a car. For a business audience, he'd offer negotiating tips.
On radio call-in shows, "My fear was someone calling up and saying, 'Hi, Mr. Mackay. I read your book and I think it's terrible,' " he says. It never happened. In fact, his two hours on Larry King's nationally broadcast radio show proved so popular -- listeners besieged the network for tapes -- that King invited Mackay to appear on his TV show. And his performance on "The Oprah Winfrey Show" in August 1988, which easily could have turned disastrous, sold an additional 75,000 books (see "The Selling of Harvey Mackay: Chapter 2," page 8).
Authors usually tour in 3-, 4-, or 5-day stints for 30 days around the book's publication. Mackay hit the major markets during that time, then staggered the smaller markets for the next three months. He was back at Mackay Envelope one day a week, playing an active role in hiring, which he believes is a CEO's most important function. The national reviews of Sharks were biting -- no pun intended, of course. The reviewer from Fortune, the magazine that once called Mackay "Mr. Make-Things-Happen" in a different context, apparently found very little going on. " Sharks," wrote the reviewer, "is a bunch of platitudes dressed up in see-through anecdotes." The most charitable major critic summoned the compassion to call the book's observations "short."
Not that the reviewers had any palpable effect. Mackay had already taken his case to the people, and they couldn't get to the bookstores fast enough. Sharks arrived on the Publishers Weekly best-seller list on April 1, debuting in the 13th slot. Nine days later, it won the number-3 spot on the New York Times list, under the odd category of "Advice, How-to and Miscellaneous," where it competed with cholesterol cures and eventually nudged out Elizabeth Taylor. "I'm on top of Elizabeth," became Mackay's favorite joke. When the hardbound edition fell off on February 26, 1989, the paperback showed up at number 5.
Success as an author translated into popularity as a speaker. During one nine-day period, Mackay gave 13 speeches. "Usually a hot book lasts a year," says Joe Cosby, chief executive of Cosby Bureau International Inc., Mackay's scheduler. "But Harvey has been going for a full two years. He doesn't need a second book." He estimates Mackay could bring in $3 million a year in speeches, if he wanted to. "The book has pushed me onto the national stage," Mackay says, "and I don't mind it at all."
Of course, the book didn't push him anywhere. He pushed himself onto that stage, using the book as his battering ram. Nevertheless, it's not an easy place to stay; it's filled with trapdoors. The fickle public can turn away at any moment. Just ask Kenneth Blanchard about the books he wrote after his best-seller. "When you are unknown, nobody is trying to knock you down, but now they want to take shots," he says. "The second book was nice, but it wasn't as important to me. I had other things going on. I wasn't as focused." Few successful business authors repeat themselves. John Naisbitt, of Megatrends fame, could not reinvent a best-seller, and Mark H. McCormack, author of What They Don't Teach You at Harvard Business School, discovered the terrible truth with his follow-up.
As after any killer product, there is immediate pressure from everyone who benefited -- in Mackay's case, the publisher, the agent, the readers. Before making any decisions, he talked to authors and publishers. He isolated the three reasons that second books tended to fail: the author has nothing to say, can't be as committed, and has trouble getting exposure. "All the talk shows say, 'Oh, we just had him,' " Mackay notes.
But Mackay felt he could overcome these problems. He could come up with plenty to say, based on the 15,000 letters he'd received and the questions he was asked during appearances and on 150 talk shows. He loved promoting Sharks. Plus, he believed his prominence was helping boost envelope sales. In Minnesota, where he had become a celebrity, company sales grew 13% in 1988, compared with 7% the year before.
Over the spring and summer of 1989, he wrote Beware the Naked Man Who Offers You His Shirt mostly on airplanes. "All I wanted to do was put out the best possible product -- call it a book -- that I could," he says. Having already created a very successful product, he simply enhanced it a bit. Instead of focusing on relationships between companies and customers, he turned his gaze inward, toward employee-employer relations. But the format changed not one whit: slick, colorful, humorous, and fast -- very, very fast. Something that could be read, to be sure. More to the point, he hoped, it was something that could be sold.
Despite his indisputable success, Harvey Mackay is still treated as an outsider in the clubby publishing business. He gets little respect, grouses his agent.
Jonathon Lazear has read the scathing reviews, heard the snide comments about Mackay's addiction to hype. "Harvey has taken a beating," says Lazear, who works in Nikes and a sweat suit, a counterpoint to his hyperkinetic client. "It surprised me because all he did was do his homework. It was calculated, and maybe he was too gleeful about it. But you feel protected when you know the facts. Harvey knew the facts, and he was damned for that. Publishing is a business. He took it for what it is."
It is also, he might add, a consumer-driven business, hence as unpredictable as toys or clothes. Back-to-back successes are rare. Granted, this time Mackay has greater resources; his advance from Morrow is "astoundingly larger," according to Lazear. Some put it as high as $2.5 million. Instead of 26 cities, he will visit at least 35 -- but pay for none. There were no disagreements over the size of the 400,000-book first printing, or the unusual title, which Mackay says he adapted from an African proverb. But most of his moves will be exactly the same. He has designed a pin, a naked man (from the back, to avoid anatomical offense) wearing running shoes and carrying a briefcase. He has held focus groups on the title (he rejected a favorite, There's No Off Switch on a Tiger) and he's planning a return trip to Ingram because the telemarketing staff may have turned over. And not just his face, but his whole body -- clothed, mind you -- appears on the cover of Beware the Naked Man.
But will consumers buy the book? By the terms Mackay himself has set, the question really boils down to: will they buy Harvey Mackay again? Sharks came of age during the Reagan years, when blustery, self-made multimillionaires were not only accepted but lionized. Leona Helmsley and "Dynasty" were everywhere. But Mackay's brash self-promotion may not play as well in this kinder, gentler "thirtysomething" age. And the book industry itself has changed; chains have lost ground to independents, making it more difficult to blanket the country with strategically placed spiritedness. "I think I can do it, even though no one has," says Mackay. "I can create another best-seller."
And what if he does? How many volumes might we be in for? "I'll quit," Mackay assures. "I have other things I want to do." But around the publishing industry, there are strong doubts about that. There's a rumor afloat, in fact, that Mackay has already decided upon a third book. As for the topic, well, maybe it's just wishful thinking on the industry's part.
The book, they say, will be a guide for authors and publishers.
THE SELLING OF HARVEY MACKAY: CHAPTER 1
If you don't have a famous name, borrow one
"If the house is on fire, forget the china, silver, and wedding album -- grab the Rolodex." -- Harvey Mackay
The story of Harvey Mackay's ascent as a best-selling author is, to a large extent, the stirring tale of a man and his Rolodex. In both of his books, Mackay urges readers to think of their Rolodex cards -- which should be continually updated and very detailed -- as baseball cards. Collect 'em, trade 'em.
In Mackay's new book, Beware the Naked Man Who Offers You His Shirt, he tells how he built a factory at discount by promising to bring the builder five more customers within the next five years. But nowhere has Mackay's partnership with his Rolodex been more productive than in his ability to convince about 45 famous people -- from show business, politics, the media, and even academia -- to endorse Swim with the Sharks Without Being Eaten Alive, giving the impression that Mackay was the jet set's own treasured secret. In truth, Mackay knows few of his flatterers.
The path to each of them twists and winds. He first encountered Abigail Van Buren through friends of friends when he was 18. He met former President Gerald Ford when Mackay served as president of the Chamber of Commerce of Minneapolis. As president of the national alumni association of the University of Minnesota, he invited Ted Koppel to speak. After reading that Koppel enjoys tennis, he challenged the "Nightline" host to a pre-speech game. Six months later, he lobbed him the manuscript. "There's no hard sell," insists Mackay. "I just ask them to respond, if they are so motivated."
But what motivates them, exactly? Naturally, Mackay claims that they read the book and can't contain themselves. Maybe so, but one-on-one meetings with the man who advises chief executives to "humanize your selling strategy" probably don't hurt, either. "I've never met a man with more zeal and absolute gall," says one person who was called upon to help Mackay publicize Sharks. "But he's good company. I enjoy talking with him."
THE SELLING OF HARVEY MACKAY: CHAPTER 2
Become an Oprah buff, if you have to
Not to raise a touchy subject, but Harvey Mackay made Oprah Winfrey look like a lightweight when he appeared on her show in August 1988.
Carrying the theme of office politics, the show began with four downtrodden people telling sad stories of how they lost their jobs at the hands of maniacal bosses and abusive co-workers -- real sharks, if you will. Audience members nodded and sighed. We'll be right back with a representative of Corporate America, Oprah implied, who will defend these misdeeds.
After a commercial, Mackay, all shiny shoes and killer suit, was seated in the middle of the Feckless Four. A superb listener, he referred to points each of them had made, and he offered each of them advice: be patient, keep your skills up, build a network of allies. At one point, he turned to one guest and inquired whether the man had asked enough questions before taking the job. "No, I didn't," the man said sheepishly. With that, the studio audience's sympathies seemed to shift.
But there was one person he still had to win over to swim out of there alive. And Mackay, the apostle of flattery, knew just how to get to Oprah. "Let's say you're my boss . . ." he began, "and I took a deep-down burning interest in you as a human being." He recited some of the things he would learn about her: that she spoke at church at age three, that she once reigned as Miss Fire Prevention Week. You're a perfectionist and a tough, fair boss, Mackay said. Oprah melted. "I'm very fair," she said coyly, "aren't I, girls?" From there, it became Mackay's show.
"Something happened when I started reciting Oprah's life. She was getting a smile," Mackay says. "If I had known exactly what they were going to do, I might not have done the show. She can really chew you up."